If you look up the word “home” in the dictionary, you will find many definitions. It can be defined as a structure in which to reside, a city, state, or country of origin, or as something that strikes deeply and “hits home”. It can also be described as the place you feel most comfortable, surrounded by family, friends, and community. These definitions apply to my Florida, my adopted home.
Home can also be defined as an animal’s tendency to return to its place of belonging, its ability to sense a deep connection to their place, their land, and home in on it time and time again. Recently someone looked at me and told me that they could see me returning to the place of my birth, the Pacific Northwest. They meant well and were recognizing a love for that land that runs deeply within me.
However, what they do not know is that while I was “born and raised” and come from generational stock, I was never really allowed to be at home there. You see, in my family, dysfunction and abuse are handed down like some family’s hand down fine china. By the time I had inherited the china, it was full of chips and cracks, missing key pieces, and all in all, it was just safer and more practical to buy a whole new set.
My Florida is a rebirth. It was a chance to start over, to shed layers of pain, to experience pure joy. An opportunity to build a new community. A chance to give my children a future free from the abuse they would experience in the Pacific Northwest at the hands of those who were supposed to have their backs. My Florida is a major step in breaking the cycle.
Before I go on, let me clarify: I love my family and am proud of my roots, but it’s complicated. I understand them and know why they are the way they are. It took strength, courage, and commitment to settle the west. It also took a toll. This cycle of abuse was born out of struggles to survive a migration in covered wagons. It was born out of weathering blizzards and ice storms in one room shacks. Truthfully, people can only handle so many deaths, still births, miscarriages, diseases, fires and other setbacks that leave them poor, hungry, and broken. To numb the pain many start to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, self-pity, blame, and abuse. Once they go down that road, you cannot fix what is broken for them. They must do it themselves. My family cannot seem to do this, so I must love them from afar.
This personal history drives me to connect to Florida the way I do. It is why I’ve set out to meet generational Floridians and study the history of this state. I know that pioneer families are tough, that they have invested a lot and survived many personal hardships to be here. I know it has not been easy, and I am acutely aware that I have adopted a home that they’ve built.
I once heard former Commissioner of Agriculture and current CEO of Ducks Unlimited Adam Putnam say “Florida is a gift people give themselves for a life well-lived elsewhere.” I agree, that happens in many instances, but also acknowledge that not all people had lives “well lived” in some other place. Florida has always been a refuge to those who found themselves spiritually or physically homeless for various reasons; whether fleeing war or persecution, or simply a need to provide a better future for their families, many early Floridians were driven to seek new land.
While I cannot see myself ever returning to the Pacific Northwest, I miss knowing every nook and cranny of a place. So, in the 11 years I have lived here, I have made it a point to experience all she has to offer. In addition to wanting to know my new state intimately, I also want to insure her future. After all, I chose this new life for myself and my children, and I want them to grow up appreciating the outdoors.
I have always found solace and peace in the outdoor world; in fact, I am much less afraid of bears, snakes, (and even alligators!) than I am of people. In my experience, animals are more trustworthy.
During my formative years, as those around me were embroiled in drama and anger, I would often slip out the door into the woods and go for a long walk or take my book and plant myself in my favorite tree near the river below my house and escape to a different world. Being outdoors provided me an unfathomable gift and many lessons, not the least of which is that all animals struggle to survive. This made me feel less alone.
To this day, whenever I feel a bit off-kilter, I step outside, shed my shoes, and just stand barefoot in the soil and feel the sun upon my face. I breathe the air deeply and inhale the scents around me. If I have time, I seek a river, lake, or the ocean. Water especially feels like home, which is why I fight so hard for improving Florida’s waters. Not only is it necessary for physically surviving, but water is also healing.
When you encounter me barefoot in a prairie, or wading through the surf or a puddle somewhere, know that I am in my happiest place. If I seem out of sorts, grab me and drag me outdoors! While many people move to Florida as a reward, my adopted Florida is a respite, a new beginning I am passionate about.
If you have deep roots here and have shared your Florida with me, please know that I am eternally grateful for the gift you have given. I will continue to strive to honor the lessons you have taught me. You make a difference in my life that I struggle to explain, but it is strong and important. A simple thank you does not cover the depth of my love and appreciation for many of you.
My Florida is not one hammock, spring, river, or wetland; my Florida is all of her, from the panhandle to the Keys. My Florida is an appreciation of her beauty, her struggles, her history, and her strength. My Florida is her people, and your willingness to embrace me and my family, making us a part of your community, and providing respite from another life.
My Florida is home.
Nyla Pipes is the Executive Director of One Florida Foundation, an organization dedicated to working with all Floridians to make our water better. When she’s not advocating for water quality and better waste management, she can be found working on her art or barefoot traipsing around some Florida swamp!